Hello Uncle Foreigner

May 10, 2015

Meeting the highlands villagers

A somewhat subversive sidetrip

The Koho people are one of Vietnam’s 54 different ethnic minorities, and they mostly live in tribal villages in the highlands outside of Đà lạt. Many Koho fought alongside U.S. troops in the American War — as it’s locally known — and to this day the tribes have an uneasy relationship with the central government. We visited one such village one afternoon, with a guide/translator, but we were asked to refrain from taking photos — so, you’re just going to have to take my word for it. It was a fascinating trip.

Some older women let us visit with them in their one-room home. They had a pot hanging over a fire at one end, the kitchen, and small chickens wandered in and out through the gap between the walls and the ground. Until recently, they told us, ten people slept in this small space on mats rolled out over the packed earth floor. But the local government had just built them new and modern communal bedroom.

Upon our arrival, the woman were a little shy, as were we. Our guide did most of the talking. Explaining them to us and us to them. But over time they loosened up and became a loud and animated chorus to our guide’s questions. Other women from the village popped their heads in to see what the ruckus was about. “What happened in here?!?” one woman said, surprised to find a room full of “Americans” — all foreigners were American to them, our guide said. He told the women that some of us were French and German. “They all look the same to me,” one of the neighbor women replied.

We talked about life in the village. By Vietnamese standards, the Koho were quite poor and life was hard work. They live an agricultural economy, so fat and lean times come and go with the harvest. Our guide showed us some of the food that this family had on hand, including dried bush rat (which he only revealed to us after we had eaten some; first he told us it was ginger) and fermented rice gruel. There were a few fat pigs, however, wandering the village’s shared gardens.

Traditional marriages were still a big deal. In some cases, the women told us, “voodoo” (our guide’s word) was practiced to snare a mate, or smite a rival … but they may have been pulling our legs on this one. More believably, they said that the custom is for the bride’s family to pay the groom’s family a large dowry — heirloom jewelry or generations-old pottery. This particular family was too poor to afford a husband, so the daughter, now in her sixties, remained single.

Men were primarily responsible for the farming, and in this village, women’s work was handmade textiles. They gave us a short demonstration of cotton spinning and weaving. “If you go to the museum in the city, you’ll see these tools there,” our guide told us. It was pretty amazing. To do the weaving, the daughter sat on the floor and wrapped an elaborate loom around her body. She rocked back and forth to shift the threads, and passed the shuttle from hand to hand quite quickly. The resulting cloths were made into wedding costumes, though they had some “throwaway” pieces that weren’t up to snuff to the occasion for sale to outsiders.

These women were characters. Once they found their voices, they were raucous and loud, and wanted to explain everything to us. They were particularly piqued about the villagers across the river, who had stolen their land, they said. One rugged neighbor, with a pipe clenched in her teeth, told us about meeting a tiger in the nearby jungle last year. They won’t hurt with you if you don’t bother them, or run, she told us through the guide. When one of our number assured her that he had read that wild tigers were extinct in this part of the world, the women invited him to come with them and see for himself. I … would not mess with these ladies.

Things are changing in the village, however. The current generation of children go to school in the city, and they are learning Vietnamese. (The villagers speak a local dialect.) These Koho people face a challenging road, one familiar to many peoples throughout the world: Assimilation will surely mean a more comfortable life for the next generation, but how can they ensure that their communities culture and customs aren’t lost in the shuffle? This is a large part of their ongoing friction with the central government.

Before we left, the mother of the house — 82 years young — sang for us. “It’s a sad song,” said our guide. But he didn’t need to translate. Her voice keened and her body trembled as she sang, and the emotion was powerful in that small room containing many cultures. We thanked them and said goodbye. But you have to stay, said one of the women, our husbands will never believe you were here!